THE BLOG
05/03/2013 07:54 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Was Something Missed Before the Boston Marathon Bombing?

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In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, criticism of federal law enforcement agencies has focused on the reappearance of what seem like "old" bureaucratic problems. The confirmation that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been the target of a federal investigation in 2011 led some to conclude that interagency cooperation, a central priority of the post-9/11 reforms, had once again proven inadequate. Accusations of "stove-piping," the bureaucratic pathology where organizations work to address problems independently and without any coordination or cooperation with other relevant agencies, typically leading to inefficiency, redundancy, poor information-sharing, and ultimately flawed policies, reflect the frustrations of elected leaders charged with legislative oversight. However, as we learn more about the case, it seems that two other distinct areas of concern deserve careful attention if we seek to improve our capabilities and avert such attacks in the future.

First, effective federal cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies -- in this case Russia's FBS -- is vitally important. While Russian intelligence sources reportedly notified the FBI in early 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had become a radical and that they were concerned about his plans to visit Russia, they also failed to provide the requisite detailed information that would have allowed the FBI to launch a more extensive investigation of Tsarnaev and his family. As it was, the FBI interviewed him and he was placed on relevant watch lists, but no further evidence of terrorist or criminal activity was uncovered and as time passed he seems to have fallen out of most databases. If, at the time of the initial notification (or any time thereafter), the Russians had shared with their U.S. counterparts credible information such as the content of taped phone conversations between Tsarnaev and his mother discussing jihad, it may have spurred further investigation or perhaps laid the groundwork for follow-up interviews after Tsarnaev's return from Russia in July 2012.

Second, and perhaps more troubling, is the seeming division or potential disconnect between federal and state/local law enforcement agencies that emerges from this case. Two key organizations, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center and the Commonwealth Fusion Center in Maynard, Mass., were reportedly not made aware of the 2011 investigation of Tsarnaev by federal officials. These organizations may have had access to databases that would have listed Tsarnaev as under investigation, but it is unclear whether this alone would have initiated any further local investigation or activity. Following existing protocols, there may have been no additional means for federal officials to differentiate Tsarnaev in order to put him more squarely "on the radar" of state and local authorities, but more than anything else, this seems to be a clear missing link in a chain that could have prevented the attacks or at the very least facilitated the investigations in the period immediately after. A pressing question remains: Would knowledge that Tsarnaev had twice engaged in dramatic public outbursts at his local mosque in Cambridge in November 2012, and this past January, have precipitated a new investigation had this information been shared with federal agencies or if local officials retrieved his name in an active database? If the answer is "yes," then the plot may well have been averted. Changes in existing procedures on data storage, access, and integration may be warranted. However, If the answer is "no" then we must consider further significant reforms to remove potentially dangerous blockages that exist between agencies at different levels of our government.

International cooperation on intelligence and counterterrorism issues, particularly with nations like Russia, will always be a difficult. Even among close allies, intelligence-sharing can pose tricky and politically sensitive questions for policy makers, but this case shows that there is clearly room for improvement. At the same time, it seems clear that addressing the challenge of homegrown Islamic terrorism will require a much greater role for local law enforcement agencies, particularly in the crucial task of intelligence gathering. Depth of knowledge of local communities and strong relationships with community actors will be critical to identify, monitor, and ideally avert future terrorist plots. Thus these local actors will increasingly be generators -- and not just the end users -- of intelligence, and the ability to manage and share the intelligence that they generate will be critical to success in the future. Facilitating flows of information between state and local authorities and federal agencies is one key area that must be addressed in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.

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